The City of Malibu is putting legal muscle into claims made about corruption and harassment at City Hall.
Three city council members voted for the city to begin searching for an outside investigator to look into claims made by current City Manager Reva Feldman that Council Member Bruce Silverstein harassed her. Earlier this year, Feldman sent the city a letter through her attorney saying that she had been subjected to relentless emails, online vitriol and other forms of harassment from the newly-elected Silverstein. Silverstein contended that Feldman had obstructed his ability to get information he needed through document requests and that she had refused to meet with him for a recorded meeting. During his campaign last fall and on social media, Silverstein used the words “corrupt” and “fascist,” among others, to describe Feldman.
At Monday’s vote, Silverstein—whom Interim City Attorney John Cotti advised was conflicted in the matter—recused himself from the Zoom.
Council Member Steve Uhring was the only voice to speak against opening an investigation. Uhring questioned Malibu Mayor Mikke Pierson about what the city would do if Silverstein was found guilty of harassment by an independent investigator. Pierson went so far as to suggest that there might be a recall.
“Let’s assume it comes back, the lawyer says it’s harassment, then what happens?” Uhring postulated. “What happens?”
“Well, I guess then we know we’re at risk and we’re going to need to have to deal with how we’re being at risk,” Pierson responded. “I don’t know, maybe the voters will want to recall that person, how do I know—”
“Ah, so now we’re coming up with a program that says, ‘Let’s figure out how we’re going to recall’—” interrupted Uhring.
“I’m not saying—you’re pushing me in that direction,” Pierson said.
Pierson argued that any “normal” company would investigate and that it was the city’s fiduciary duty; ultimately, after increasingly heated back and forth, he warned Uhring that his questioning was veering “dangerously close” to violating California’s open meeting law, known as the Brown Act.
Farrer spoke next, saying she was worried about Malibu’s ability to attract another city manager after Feldman departs with the “cloud” of Feldman’s claims still hanging over the city. When Uhring interrupted Farrer, she repeatedly asked Cotti if she had the floor and ultimately asked that all city council members not speaking be muted. She got her wish, and that mute on Uhring carried all the way through to the vote, where the 3-1 majority decided that the city would move forward on investigating Feldman’s claims.
Council makes progress in choosing firm to investigate corruption claims
Council voted unanimously, 5-0, for Silverstein and Farrer, assisted by Cotti, to select a law firm to investigate a former city council member’s claims of corruption.
The city will take the next steps in its search for a lawyer to investigate an affidavit delivered by former Council Member Jefferson “Zuma Jay” Wagner in late 2020. That affidavit detailed experiences of former Council Member Jefferson “Zuma Jay” Wagner that alleged a culture of corruption and backroom deals at Malibu City Hall; the most serious allegation within it is that one company bidding for a construction contract attempted to bribe Wagner with trips to Las Vegas and Costa Rica in exchange for his vote.
In the affidavit, Wagner states that he brought this instance of bribery, which happened several years ago, to then-Malibu City Attorney Christi Hogin. Hogin retired from her law firm Best Best & Krieger late last year, but Cotti also works for Best Best & Krieger. For this reason, Silverstein argued at the council meeting, Cotti was conflicted on the matter and not the right person to lead an investigation into Wagner’s allegations.
Other city council members argued that Silverstein himself was conflicted in the matter, given that he helped Wagner transcribe his recollections into a legal document and presented the affidavit to the council.
Cotti shared that the city staff reached out to multiple potential law firms to gauge interest and five had responded.
After much deliberation, the council decided that Silverstein and Farrer, assisted by Cotti, would interview and choose an investigator out of the prospective five.
City could get $18 million in low-income housing funding
Malibu could access $18 million in congressional funding through a block grant program that allocates money to cities damaged in the 2018 Camp, Carr, Mendocino Complex and Woolsey fires. Assistant City Manager Lisa Soghor said the city could use this money for multiple projects aimed at helping low or middle-income community members.
Multiple city council members expressed surprise at the amount of money available; Pierson called it “a pleasant shock.”
Pierson, Farrer and Mayor Pro Tem Paul Grisanti said they had looked into developers who specialized in low-income housing projects. Pierson said he had visited one such project in Santa Monica; he described its communal teen rooms where children could do their homework and how each apartment had its own garden plot. Pierson’s takeaway from his visit was that developers know how to construct low-income housing in keeping with the already-existing neighborhood’s charm; he hoped that the block grant funding could be used to build housing for lower-income locals such as teachers and firefighters.
Separating from SMMUSD could take five more years
The already-long process of separating Malibu schools from a Santa Monica-dominated school district is going to stretch on longer, but the path forward is more clear now.
The city council heard a presentation from the city’s team of lawyers and experts working on the process of forming Malibu Unified School District, which would require Malibu schools to leave Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD). Only 14 percent of SMMUSD students are from Malibu, but Malibu makes up more than 35 percent of the property tax base, LaTanya Kirk-Carter of Kirk Carter & Associates outlined.
Kirk-Carter emphasized that Santa Monica students would not be “harmed” by Malibu leaving. Currently, SMMUSD is the third-wealthiest school district in LA County, receiving $14,197 in funding per student. If the school districts were to split, Malibu would become the third-wealthiest school district in LA County, while Santa Monica would be the fourth. But both would get more money per student: Malibu would receive $16,624 per student and Santa Monica $15,702, Kirk-Carter explained.
The group said they had submitted a petition to the Los Angeles County Office of Education (LACOE). Next up, they said, is a preliminary hearing on April 17, 2021; community members are able to attend virtually.
After that initial hearing will likely come more hearings in both Santa Monica and Malibu.
“This could be five years away, when we get to the last public hearing,” Christine Wood of Best Best & Krieger said.